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Monday, June 13, 2011
Long on talent, short on execution

By Tom Haberstroh

Miami Heat
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
None of the Heat's Big Three played up to his potential when it mattered most in an elimination game.

MIAMI -- Talent gets you only so far. The rest is up to execution.

This much was painfully clear for the Miami Heat in Game 6. The game of basketball is played on 94 feet of hardwood. It is not played on a preseason stage full of pyrotechnics. It is not played in a cloud of hype.

Put away the MVP trophies. Toss out the All-Star appearances. Forget the ring count.

Ultimately, to win the elusive championship, a team must simply play better basketball over the course of a seven-game series, and the Heat failed in that endeavor.

Why did the Heat lose to the Mavericks in the Finals?

The truth is in the details. With a top-heavy roster, the Heat were long on talent, but short on execution.

“They played great, we came up short, and that's really it,” Chris Bosh said after the game.

They came up short. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used that phrase four times during his postgame presser, with each echo underlining the sobering fact that his team failed to reach its goal of winning the title. Spoelstra stressed all season that the Heat needed to execute their game plan and stay focused on the task at hand, or else they’d fall short.

And on Sunday, they didn’t just fall short. They looked completely lost in the confines of their home arena. It genuinely appeared as if Sunday was the first time the Heat had played together on a basketball court. They dribbled the ball off their own feet, passed it to the ankles of their teammates, and jumped in the air without a purpose. There was no precision, decisiveness or polish.

All the work they put in since training camp at the military base, all the chemistry that Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Bosh seemed to build during the regular season, all the poise we witnessed down the stretch against Chicago and Boston -- all of that disappeared before the millions who watched Game 6. We expected their bubbling talent to rise to the top. Instead, it vanished into thin air.

“The habits that we built all season long would suggest that how we played at times during this series was very uncharacteristic,” Spoelstra said. “That's not how we played during the season, and that certainly wasn't the way we played in the first three rounds.”

Spoelstra then diplomatically tipped his cap to the Mavericks.

“A large part of this [struggle] would probably be the competition,” Spoelstra said. “Yes, we will beat ourselves up about so many things we could have done better. But ultimately, that's what this stage is about. And sometimes as tough as it is to admit, sometimes you get beat by a team that it was their time.”

Of all the statistics printed on the page of the box score, none of them carried more weight than the 17 turnovers tallied by the Heat. The miscues alone dragged on the Heat’s offense, but the crushing blow was the fact that the 17 turnovers -- including six by James and five by Wade -- led to 27 Mavericks points.

Let’s start with James. We’re not psychologists so it’s not worth trying to speculate what’s going on between his ears. We can only talk about what we saw -- and boy, was it a train wreck.

One of the most head-shaking moments of the game came with 40 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Heat down by five. Jason Terry had just missed a 3-pointer. Mike Miller handed the ball to James after pulling down the rebound. James took possession and started dribbling up the court. As James made his first couple trots down the floor, DeShawn Stevenson stepped up to defend James in the backcourt and to put some light pressure on him. But as soon as Stevenson got in his crouch in front of James, the two-time MVP panicked, immediately picked up his dribble and passed the ball to Miller.

The only problem? Miller wasn’t looking. He had already put his head down and started jogging down the court, but James decided to pass to Miller anyway. The ball subsequently bounced off Miller’s heels behind him. Miller had no idea that James had passed it to him until the ball ricocheted off his shoes. Stevenson picked up the loose ball behind the Mavericks 3-point line and drained a 3-spot on the Heat as James helplessly looked on underneath the Mavericks' basket.

It was just one of James’ mind-boggling errors in Game 6, but it illustrated how even the slightest sign of pressure swallowed him whole. James may be 6-foot-8 but he remains one of the best ball handlers in the game, but that moment spoke volumes about how James appeared like a different player on this Finals stage.

James barely penetrated into the paint, but when he did manage to pierce the Dallas defense, he inexplicably passed out at the first touch of resistance in the lane. That led to turnovers too. This was not the same James we were accustomed to seeing muscle his way through multiple defenders and propel himself to the rim like a wrecking ball.

No, James actively avoided contact. Instead of taking it to the rack, he dished it to Juwan Howard -- Juwan Howard! – on multiple occasions in the lane in the second half. James took four free throws during the entire game, and he was lucky to rack up that many considering how timid he looked with the ball.

Of course, Wade wasn’t much better. The Heat can survive if one of the members of the dynamic duo has an off game, but not both. Wade had five turnovers of his own, two coming in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Down seven points with just under 10 minutes left, Wade let Terry strip him 40 feet away from the basket. Turnover, going the other way.

A couple possessions later, Wade lost focus and straight-up dribbled the ball off his foot out of bounds. Wade was supposed to represent the steady hand of a guy who’s been there before, but he was no less shaky than James.

And Bosh? Almost all of those backbreaking offensive rebounds by the Mavericks in the fourth quarter occurred because Bosh failed to either box out his man or get his hand on a live ball. All those Tyson Chandler tip-outs? That was Bosh’s guy. Each one of those offensive rebounds was Bosh’s ball to lose.

Sure, Bosh could have probably used a couple more touches on offense -- he recorded only nine shot attempts from the floor -- but he let Chandler beat him to the ball at the worst possible moments.

The Big Three came up short. The most talented trio in the NBA totaled 57 points in an elimination game at home, 10 points fewer than their average in the postseason.

Playing on their home court, Wade, Bosh and James were upstaged by the Mavericks in nearly every facet on the game. The fluid cohesion that we expected to see from the Big Three on the big stage? Nowhere to be found.

The NBA is not a fantasy league. This will be a lasting message of the Heat’s 2010-11 season. You can’t just assemble a talented trio, add up all the individual stats, and start collecting the rings. Basketball is more complicated and more nuanced than that.

For all the hours of highlight reels that the Heat accumulated over the course of the season, the Big Three will remember other things. James will be haunted by all the times he couldn’t puncture the Mavericks' defense. Wade will run through all the shots that he missed and the balls that he coughed up down the stretch. Bosh won’t forget all the rebounds that Chandler stole from his grasp.

You can have all the talent in the world, but the chemistry and execution matters most.

“It’s like a puzzle,” Wade explained after the game. “And their pieces came together a little bit better than ours at the end.”

After the first trial of the NBA's great experiment, the puzzle is still waiting to be solved.